Words by Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir
Photography by Golli
As national symbols go, the sheep isn’t the flashiest of them all. Throughout history, however, the animal that has earned the love and respect of Icelanders is the sheep. It enjoys high cultural status, not just as a staple in the traditional Icelandic diet, but also for keeping locals warm.
Icelandic wool is a remarkable material, thanks to its two distinct layers of fibre: The wool is split into þel, soft warm fibres, known as underwool, that lie close to the sheep’s skin, and tog, the rough, waterproof outer fibres. These layers make Icelandic wool versatile and interesting to work with.
For years, producing yarn in Iceland has meant selling your wool raw to a large-scale producer. In order to do that, you needed to provide large quantities of the material in the same colour, usually white, or your wool would most likely go to waste. In the past few years, however, farmers around Iceland have been finding new ways to produce yarn on a smaller scale, ensuring more wool is utilised and creating new products in the process.
Anna Dröfn Sigurjónsdóttir runs the Ensku Húsin guesthouse on the west coast of Iceland along with her husband Hjörleifur Helgi Stefánsson. A dedicated knitter since she was a teenager, it only made sense to her to use the wool their sheep produced as well as their meat. “When you raise your own sheep, you can choose from the very best wool,” she enthuses.
While most of what Anna knits is immediately given to friends and family, the wool she doesn’t use herself is sold to other avid knitters. Her small-scale production allows Anna to choose only the best quality wool for spinning, creating a product you simply can’t get from a large-scale producer. “For the spun wool, I only use lamb’s wool, which has more underwool than that from older sheep, so it’s as soft as can be. Working on this small scale means that each skein of wool is unique.”
Anna mostly sells her wool in skeins or along with patterns she designs herself. “The people who buy my wool are both tourists and Icelandic wool enthusiasts, people who appreciate the product.” For Anna, there’s a world of difference between the product she makes and large-scale wool production. She pulls out a few skeins of wool she’s had spun, all with slight variations in colour. “You can think of it like fine wine, the vintages are different. The wool and the colour genetics are unique from one sheep to another. I think there are 52 colours of sheep in Iceland!”
For the past few decades, producing wool in Iceland hasn’t been lucrative, but doing more of the production at the farm means that not only does Anna have more control over the final product, she also recovers more of the cost of production. “You don’t get very much for the wool if you sell it raw. The more I can do with it here, the more I get for it.” Still, Anna clarifies, no one goes into this kind of wool production to get rich quick. “You don’t do something like this if you’re not intensely interested in crafts. It’s more passion than business.”
When she started processing wool, Anna had to send it abroad to be spun in England or France. She isn’t the only Icelandic farmer to have faced this problem. In order to meet the growing interest in local wool production, Hulda Brynjólfsdóttir and her husband Tyrfingur Sveinsson opened a mini wool mill just last year called Uppspuni. They spin their own wool as well and sell it on the premises. Their collection of 12 washing, separating, combing, and spinning machines don’t produce the amount that the large-scale producers can, but they provide access for small-scale farmers such as Anna, who want to sell their wool and provide an alternative, farm-to-table product.
“Before, if you had your own sheep and wanted to make yarn from your own wool, there were such limited possibilities,” Hulda tells me. “The large producers would spin your wool for you, but you needed to bring 250kg (550lbs) of wool in the same colour.” For Hulda, the huge increase in interest in yarn making is a natural progression of trends in society. “There’s been an awakening of people wanting to use everything with zero waste. Also, there’s this connection to nature. If you have sheep, you want to be able to use every part of them.”
Aside from the luxury of being able to spin wool from a fleece or two to make a special sweater, a mini mill’s versatility provides opportunities for innovation. Access to small-scale production means that people can test out innovative ideas at little expense. “We have been doing all sorts of things that we haven’t been able to do before. Spinning goat yarn and combining wool with plant fibres. They’ve produced fibres from milk and roses and we spun it with wool. It produces a soft yarn that is made from natural materials. I’ve also made angora wool, mixed with lamb’s wool. The machines can do all sorts of things, and it’s been fun to experiment with that.”
While the possibilities for wool production are growing, many farmers still simply throw their wool away. According to Hulda, it’s a question of infrastructure. “There’s plenty of wool and plenty of things to do with it, but you need the infrastructure to find buyers for it. I might be making a sweater and you might need one, but how does that information travel?”
Ultimately, Hulda believes in a simple guideline: “We need to show the material the respect it deserves. The Icelandic sheep is unique, with its layered wool. There are other sheep that have tog and þel, but it’s denser here. This makes it good for so many applications. Many breeds of sheep have only one colour. Our pig-headed independence has made sure we still have all these different colours. We have all these things that have been lost in many other breeds, and we should be making the most of it, not fritter it away.”
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.